Botswana: Presidency of Seretse Khama (1966 - 1980)

On obtaining independence on the 30 September 1966 the Republic of Botswana inherited very little from 80 years of British colonialism. The belated developmental efforts of the previous decade had been too little too late, there was little in the way of government machinery or social and economic infrastructure and, with an annual per capita income of $75, Botswana was one of the ten poorest countries in the world (Murray & Parson 1990, 167; Danevad 1995, 385). The country was heavily dependent on the export of one product, beef (Munger 1965, 38). There was little industry to speak of, manufacturing accounted for 8% of GDP in 1966, and only a fraction of the population was in formal employment and the overwhelming bulk of these were migrant workers whose earnings supported a large part of the population and provided the government with its main source of income (Murray & Parson 1990, 167, 189; Danevad 1995, 386; Dale 1978, 18, 19). At any one time an estimated 20% of the adult male population was absent and working in South Africa (Munger 1965, 39). There was 12 kms of paved road, about 2000 km of graded roads and 7200 km of track (Acemoglu et al 2001, 2; Munger 1965, 69).

The British had done little to develop the health and educational systems. There were 22 African university graduates and 100 people who had completed secondary education (Acemoglu et al 2001, 2). The country had only 251 primary and nine secondary schools with less than 80 000 students enrolled of which a little more than 1000 were at secondary level, while only one third of the population could read (Meyer et al 1993, 456; Murray & Parson 1990, 167; Munger 1965, 42). In 1965 there were but 20 students studying at university (Munger 1965, 47). In 1960 there were only 11 doctors (Murray & Parson 1990, 183).

No recent censuses had been undertaken so that the population estimate was a rough 500 000 to 600 000 people in 1965, over 99% of which were Africans , though small numbers of Whites and Asians were present who dominated commerce (Munger 1965, 5). Urban settlements were small and 90% of the population was based in the rural areas (Danevad 1995, 386). The African population was very heterogeneous, for though 85% of the population could speak Setswana it was the mother tongue of only half the population, but the traditional dominance of the Tswana over other groups enabled the government to promote Tswana as a national language alongside the official language, English; though this did not translate into active discrimination against non-Tswanas it did become an obstacle to advancement for those not fluent in the language (Acemoglu et al 2001, 10; Solway 2002, 714, 715).

The government was heavily dependent on British aid to meet its spending requirements; in 1965 one third of revenue was from this source (Murray & Parson 1990, 167; Munger 1965, 71). Economic dependence on South Africa was not restricted to remittances from migrant workers, for South Africa dominated the Southern African Customs Union that supplied the country with another important source of revenue and Botswana's exports were reliant on South African infrastructure to reach their markets (Munger 1965, 71). This situation gave the government little leeway in the development of its foreign policy, for it had to avoid antagonising the Apartheid regime. The countries sole railway line, running through the densely populated east, linked the rebel colony of Rhodesia with South Africa, giving Botswana an unwanted strategic significance to the racist states that virtually surrounded it (Land 1966, 11). As a result, despite its sympathy with the South African liberation movements, Botswana could not afford to supply them with material aid (Dale 1978, 14). Nevertheless, despite South African objections, a road was built it to Zambia to reduce dependence on Rhodesia and South Africa and in 1974 it became part of the frontline African states seeking to obtain majority rule for the White dominated south (Parsons 1999).

The government of President Seretse Khama adopted a Provisional Development Plan in 1966 that, though vague on modalities beyond the reorganisation of government structures and the attraction of foreign industrial investment, was ambitious in its goals, chief of which was fiscal independence by 1971 (Murray & Parson 1990, 167). The end of a five year drought in 1966 and substantial aid from Britain enabled the economy to recover and GDP increased from P14.5 million in 1966 to P23 million in 1968/9 and by 1972 GDP had tripled and state revenue had doubled (Murray & Parson 1990, 167, 168; Land 1966, 10). It was the development of Botswana's beef export industry and, especially after 1971, diamond mining, which provided the engines of economic expansion (Murray & Parson 1990, 168; Danevad 1995, 386). By 1972 and the government no longer required foreign aid; a key element of this success was the renegotiation of the Southern African Customs Union agreement in 1969 that resulted in increased revenue for Botswana from P1.6 million in 1968/9 to in P12.5 million by 1972/3, providing 45% of government revenue (Murray & Parson 1990, 168; Good 1992, 75). Another element was the revenue deal made with De Beers that enabled the government to collect P2.8 million from De Beers in 1972; moreover through renegotiation of its revenue share the government's revenue rose to P18 million in 1975 (Murray & Parson 1990, 168; Good 1992, 75). Beef exports were stimulated by the deal made with the European Economic Community in the early 1970s that enabled it to double its exports to Europe (Murray & Parson 1990, 169; Good 1992, 75). The result was that the economy grew between 12% and 13% per year enabling the government to remedy the deficiencies in administrative, social and economic infrastructure it had inherited (Parsons 1999).

Government spending was directed at expanding the capacity of its administration and on education, healthcare and transport infrastructure (Murray & Parson 1990, 181). The government inherited a civil service with just 2000 employees at independence and expanded it to 21 000 by 1985, but while key positions were occupied by Batswana it continued to rely on expatriates for specialised skills (Murray & Parson 1990, 184). Between 1966 and 1990 an average of 100 km of tarred roads were built every year (Murray & Parson 1990, 181). The government embarked on creating new education infrastructure and increasing school enrolment, especially at secondary level, so that by 1985 85% of eligible youth were in primary school, though only a third of school leavers could be accommodated at secondary level (Meyer et al 1993, 456; Murray & Parson 1990, 184). In 1980 the government was able to abolish primary school fees and secondary school fees by the end of the 1980s (Solway 2002, 716). In 1981 the University of Botswana was established (Meyer et al 1993, 456). Until 1973 healthcare policy focused on expanding and upgrading hospitals in major centres, but in 1973 the policy shifted to primary healthcare provision through the creation of visitation posts and clinics at grass roots level so that by 1990 80% of the population lived within 15 km of a healthcare facility (Murray & Parson 1990, 184). As a result infant mortality fell from 97 to 68 per thousand between 1971 and 1981 (Murray & Parson 1990, 184).

The first post independence National Assembly election was held in October 1969 (see The October 1969 General Election for details). The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) saw its share of the vote fall from 80% to 68% and the number of its seats from 28 to 24 of 31 seats (compare 1969 National Assembly results and 1965 National Assembly results). The Botswana Peoples Party's (BPP) share of the vote declined from 14% to 12% but it retained its three seats. However, the Botswana National Front (BNF), formed after the previous election, won 13.5% of the vote and three seats while the Botswana Independence Party (BIP) captured 6% of the vote an won a seat for the first time. There was a remarkable drop in voter turnout in this election (from 75% to 55%, moreover large numbers of eligible voter did not register) that was explained by some analysts as the result of a widespread attitude that the President, like a chief, did not need to be re-elected and that only when a new president was chosen would it be necessary for voters to go to the polls; in essence the failure to vote amounted to an endorsement of the incumbent (Comaroff & Comaroff 1997, 137, 138). Other commentators argued that the fall in support for the BDP was because the traditional aristocracy resented the usurpation of their governance role by the new bureaucracy and the failure of higher living standards for the majority of the population to materialise (Danevad 1995, 387, 388).

The high levels of economic growth experienced did not in fact result translate into rising living standards for Botswana's rural poor who formed the vast majority of it population, but instead into growing inequality as the new wealth enriched a managerial elite and the traditional aristocracy (Murray & Parson 1990, 170). A comprehensive rural survey in 1974/5 found that two-thirds of rural households lived in poverty and 45% in extreme poverty (Parson 1984, 7; Curry 1984, 454). Moreover, the richest 10% of households had 42% of total income (Curry 1984, 454). In the 1940s only 10% of rural households owned no stock, but by 1974 this was around 50% (Good 1992, 224). The growing poverty and inequality was attributable to the government's neglect of agriculture and of the rural areas. Between 1966 and 1973 government spending on agriculture stagnated at 5% of total capital expenditure (Curry 1984, 454).

In 1973, the Accelerated Rural Development Programme (ARDP) was adopted, ostensibly to uplift the rural poor (Murray & Parson 1990, 169, 170). However, the investments made were small, though they did represent a 250% increase in rural spending, and were focused on farmers who were already in a relatively good position (Murray & Parson 1990, 170; Good 1992, 77). More than half of development expenditure went to developing urban infrastructure and the roads connecting them, while much of the rest went on building schools, clinics and roads (Murray & Parson 1990, 170; Good 1992, 77). It seemed as if the purpose of the exercise was aimed at highly visible rural development activities aimed at the rural electorate for the upcoming 1974 elections (Good 1992, 77; Danevad 1995, 388). If this was the intention it seemed to succeed, for in the October 1974 National Assembly election (see The October 1974 General Election for details) the BDP was able to increase its share of the vote to 77% and it won 27 of the 32 seats (see Election results). The opposition parties all lost some of their share of the vote and the BNF and BPP lost a seat each. However, voter turnout fell to 31%.

Rural spending was further stepped up a little in 1975 with the adoption of the Tribal Grazing Land Policy (TGLP) aimed at land conservation and improvement, but it was poorly controlled and implemented and became a means by which a land grab by the wealthy cattle owning elite was executed (Murray & Parson 1990, 170, 176). The policy envisaged the arrest of degradation of communal land as a result of over stocking and over grazing by the introduction of individual tenure and enclosure, but the implementation of the policy favoured the wealth at the expense of the poor (Danevad 1995, 389). While around half of rural households owned livestock in 1974 this deteriorated to 58% in 1981 and 74% in 1991 (Good 1992, 224). Between 1972 and 1983 agricultural production fell and the gap between growth in incomes earned in the rural areas and those earned in formal employment increased steadily (Danevad 1995, 387). During the drought of 1975 the government introduced relief measures for the rural poor in the form of emergency food supplements and by the end of 1979 about 50 000 adults were eligible under the programme, but malnutrition amongst children was endemic at the end of the decade (Curry 1984, 455).

The high inflationary environment of the 1970s, unleashed by the oil price shock of 1973, constrained economic growth and job creation (Murray & Parson 1990, 170, 176). The government was not able to resist wage demands in the civil service and their salaries doubled between 1974 and 1980, putting upward pressure on private sector wages and reducing resources available for development expenditure (Murray & Parson 1990, 170; Curry 1984, 454). The government tended to take a hard line with private sector strikes, intervening in a 1974 strike by bank employees and forcing the workers to return to work empty handed, while a 1975 strike by miners at Selebi Phikwe was broken by the deployment of riot police using tear gas (Good 1992, 86). The expansion of the educational system and the rising population, without a sufficiently large increase in employment opportunities, created a growing class of youth without employment, so in 1979 the government embarked a job creation programme termed the Financial Assistance Policy (Murray & Parson 1990, 170, 176).

In the late 1970s, as the liberation war in Rhodesia escalated and refugees from the 1976 student uprising in South Africa fled to Botswana, Botswana's position became more difficult (Parsons 1999). Guerrillas fleeing from Rhodesian security forces were pursued across the northern border into Botswana, leading to clashes between the Rhodesians and Botswana police (Parsons 1999; Dale 1978, 16). In addition, youths from western Rhodesia used Botswana as a transit through to Zambia to join the liberation forces, resulting in cross-border raids by the Rhodesian security forces and in 1977 the National Assembly authorised the creation of a Defence Force to ward off these attacks (Dale 1978, 16). The situation improved greatly after Zimbabwe's independence and Khama initiated the founding the Southern African Development Coordination Conference of independent states that aimed at reducing their economic dependence on South Africa (Parsons 1999).

Despite the difficulties experienced, Botswana had made considerable ground by the end of the 1970s. Domestic savings, which had been negative at independence, formed 20% of GDP in the late 1970s, the country's foreign exchange reserves began to rise and though its foreign debt escalated by 1707% between 1970 and 1984 because of high economic growth the ratio of debt service to exports was a low 4% in the late 1980s (Good 1992, 74). The government's conservative spending pattern, relative to its escalating revenue, meant that its revenue growth usually exceeded its spending growth and it became a net saver (Danevad 1995, 387). Nevertheless the economy remained highly dependent on diamonds, beef and to a lesser extent other minerals such copper and nickel, while the contribution of manufacturing remained negligible (Dale 1978, 20).

In the October 1979 National Assembly election voter registration and turnout improved substantially (turnout was 58%; see The October 1979 General Election). Despite a slight decline in its share of the vote the BDP managed to wrest a seat each from the BPP and the BIP, bring its total to 29 and eliminating the BIP from the Assembly (see Election results for details). In July 1980 Seretse Khama died and the National Assembly elected his deputy Ketumile Masire as president in his place (Parsons 1999).


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